Teaching Philosophy

In political science terms I am an “Americanist,” an “Institutionalist,” a “public law scholar.” I teach classes through these three lenses, including judicial process, constitutional law, civil liberties, and American government. Generally, I am concerned with teaching my students about the process of American government, the constitutional foundations of our democracy, the inner workings of the American legal system, and about how institutional rules affect decisions made by judges, presidents, members of Congress, and other officials.

While teaching the substance of American government and law I also have another responsibility to my students – preparing them for their lives and careers after college. As such, I am guided by a quote from Sir Francis Bacon that, “Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.” Apart from the gender specific language, Bacon's words ring true in every class I teach. 

My students certainly become full of knowledge from what they read in my classes.  Most of the courses I teach do not lend themselves to typical textbooks, so my students mainly read primary sources – Supreme Court opinions. Although the readings are arduous, we immerse ourselves in great cases, from Marbury v. Madison to Roe v.Wade to Bush v. Gore, and in the writings of great legal minds including John Marshall, Louis Brandeis, Thurgood Marshall, and Antonin Scalia. Additionally, we analyze the political, social, and economic context within which cases are decided. And, for recent cases, students read primary archival documents to help them understand the process of decision-making on the Supreme Court. These documents tell stories in ways textbooks cannot. Indeed, copies of Justice Brennan’s conference notes or Justice Blackmun’s oral argument notes bring cases to life for students in ways that secondary sources cannot.

After reading these primary sources, class discussion (conference) is easy and enjoyable. Being a part of a class where students must defend their positions on controversial Court decisions or the law is why I love teaching. Through these debates students learn more about law and politics than they ever could from simply ingesting my lectures and reading cases. In short, I believe dialogue is critical for students’ development. Indeed, when students engage in daily discussions they are forced to think quickly and to defend or counter arguments set out by some of the greatest legal minds of our nation’s history. The task difficult, and my standards are high, but I am rarely disappointed.

Writing is the final component of the teaching equation for Francis Bacon and for me. I believe students must become the best writers they can be. As such, even in my introductory American government course students write a series of thought papers after completing exercises involving various political phenomena. In the constitutional law sequence students complete two writing assignments that put them in the position of Supreme Court justice. Here, they must apply legal reasoning to “decide” hypothetical cases related to areas of law we discuss.  These assignments have no correct answers. My only directions are that they must present cogent arguments and support these arguments with solid evidence. I once had a student suggest that writing about something where no right answer exists does not make sense. For me it makes perfect sense because I am most interested in helping students learn to think critically and to express their thoughts lucidly on paper. If they can do so in my classroom they will be accomplished writers no matter what they do after college. 

I love teaching law and politics and I relish nurturing students as they make the transition to full citizenship in our democratic society. It is my job to pass on to them this wisdom and a love of learning. I do so in the classroom and in other capacities as well. As the former director of our department undergraduate studies honors programs I often have students ask me whether they should major in political science. Of course I want to offer an emphatic yes but I usually restrain myself. What I say is that they should pick a major that will make them well read, that will help them communicate well orally, and that will teach them how to become an excellent writer. I give this advice because I believe it is what students need to be successful and to be active participants in our democracy. As my teaching philosophy suggests, I strive to practice what I preach.